Residents tentatively returned to the streets of the shaken southern Russian city of Nalchik on Saturday, trying to restore a sense of normality after at least 128 people were killed in a militant siege.
At least 18 hostages were taken during the clashes between more than 100 militants and Russian security forces in Nalchik on Thursday and Friday. Most were eventually freed. Deputy Interior Minister Andrei Novikov said on Saturday that 92 militants had been killed, raising the official figure from 72. He offered no explanation for the increase, which brings the death toll from this week's fighting to at least 128, according to a tally of accounts by officials, news reports and an Associated Press reporter.
Novikov said Friday that 24 law enforcement officers were killed and added Saturday that 85 were wounded. Conflicting official casualty tolls put the number of civilian dead at between 12 and 18.Chechen rebels claimed involvement in the near-simultaneous attacks on police and security facilities that terrified the city of 235,000 and left corpses lying on the streets. But Novikov said Friday that more than two-thirds of the more than 100 militants in the attacks were from Kabardino-Balkariya.
Nalchik is the capital of the Kabardino-Balkariya republic, near Chechnya where rebels have been fighting Russian forces for most of the past decade. Earlier this year, police in Nalchik twice launched assaults on alleged Islamic militants holed up in apartments, and this week's attacks raised worries that the Chechen violence was spreading in the republic.
On Saturday, heavily armed soldiers and police troops patrolled the streets, looking for fighters who may have blended into the civilian population to regroup. Tanks and armored personnel carriers stood at several main crossroads and soldiers peered into the windows of cars entering and leaving the city.
Most stores and restaurants had reopened, but although there were far more people outside than on Friday, the city's central market remained closed. In the city center, a crowd of several dozen people stood outside the shattered remains of a gift shop where gunmen had held two women hostage.
Authorities initially had said the near-simultaneous attacks on police and security facilities Thursday morning were a diversionary tactic prompted by a police raid Wednesday on suspected militants in the suburb of Belaya Rechka.
But on Saturday, the republic's chief prosecutor Yuri Ketov denied that account, saying they were "a carefully planned and prepared operation."
Kabardino-Balkariya President Arsen Kanokov backed up that claim, saying in Saturday's edition of the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta: "It was a thoroughly planned action. They prepared for it for a long time."
President Vladimir Putin promised Russia would deal with all attacks "hard and consistently," but the bloodshed underlined that violence in the restive Caucasus region is spreading. However, at a meeting with security officials on Saturday, Putin praised law-enforcement agencies for their "well-coordinated action" in Nalchik. Kanokov blamed the attack on social conditions, which rebels have capitalized on.
The attack came amid a long-running regional campaign aimed at undermining nascent Islamic extremism -- which Russian officials describe as "Wahhabism," a term stemming from the austere Islamic sect with origins in Saudi Arabia.
Rights lawyers, and even the region's officially sanctioned Islamic leader, say the campaign has caught up innocent, peaceful young Muslims, alienating and offending them as they rediscover their Muslim heritage, CNN International reports.